Nashville Symphony pulls out the stops for Terry Riley concerto

Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero led the Nashville Symphony on Feb. 25 at the Schermerhorn with an intriguing program featuring an arrangement of Dietrich Buxtehude’s Chaconne in E minor, Terry Riley’s new organ concerto At the Royal Majestic, and Igor Stravinsky’s ever-popular The Rite of Spring.

Buxtehude was a Baroque-era organ master, famed in the late 1600s for his virtuosity and improvisational skills and admired by other renowned contemporaries, such as J.S. Bach and Handel. Arranger Carlos Chavez takes Buxtehude’s chaconne and attempts to add a layer of texture and color in order to create variation, but it turns the piece into nothing more than easy listening. The structure is broken down into individual parts that pass around the musical themes, winds and strings alternating in a predictable manner, and the piece turns out to be rather homogenous in structure and orchestration. Unfortunately, the arrangement washed over the variation and complexity of the original work, but it turned out to be the perfect opportunity for the Nashville Symphony to show off their rich orchestral sound. Mimicking an organ, they filled Schermerhorn with a sonorous and majestic tone.  While quite impressive, at times the volume became a little too overpowering for individual parts and melodies to shine through.

Terry Riley was in the audience for a stellar performance of his work At the Royal Majestic, which had its Nashville premiere on Friday night at the Schermerhorn. The piece had its first performance on April 11, 2014 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and organist Cameron Carpenter, conducted by John Adams. The Nashville Symphony did an incredible job of handling Riley’s complex rhythmic and meter changes with precision and confidence. The first movement started off with a jazzy opening that eventually built up in intensity and volume. The harmonies continued to pile on top of each other as the piece went on, creating giant chord clusters that unfortunately only led to more and more sound, as opposed to any kind of harmonic progression or forward movement.

Organist Todd Wilson was able to show off his remarkable dexterity with some complicated runs that sadly were hard to hear at times, due to the harmonic thickness from the ensemble around him. The later part of the movement featured a brief and welcome reprise from the overwhelming sound that had preceded it, in which the musical line and harmony blossomed. The melody was quite simple and beautiful, and the lighter orchestration made it much easier to follow and enjoy.

The second movement was relatively short compared to the other two movements, but similar to the first movement, it started off with a compelling and intriguing melody that over time blended into a giant wash of sound, particularly with the entrance of the organ. Yet unlike the first movement, Riley uses rhythm in the second movement as the driving force, with the percussion section propelling the music forward. The Nashville Symphony percussion did a superb job of managing an extremely complicated and nuanced part (complete with a drum set solo!) that cut clear above the blocks of harmony being produced from the rest of the orchestra. The use and range of percussion in this movement is quite innovative for an organ concerto, a specific genre that has not seen quite the range of advancement in terms of repertoire as other instruments over the course of musical history.

The third movement was the easiest to follow out of all three. Themes were more apparent than in the previous movements, and the solo organ finished out the concerto peacefully with a series of chords that featured Riley’s penchant for unusual harmonies. Overall, the piece fell flat in that there was a general lack of melodic or harmonic direction throughout, despite the masterful execution of the work by the symphony.

This weekend marked the first time that the Nashville Symphony performed The Rite of Spring since they became residents of the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall, and it was an event not to be missed. They finished out the Saturday night’s program with a riveting rendition of Stravinsky’s work that was equal parts captivating and cathartic after a night of rather uninspiring music. The opening bassoon solo was absolutely serene and sensitively played. Aside from some slight intonation issues in the wind parts, the orchestra filled the hall with a passionate and robust sound, full of fire and magnitude. While the Nashville Symphony had seemed confident while playing Buxtehude and Riley, they absolutely shone in the Stravinsky, as they were clearly comfortable and at ease, making it the most musical performance of the night.

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About Sabrina Bradford

Sabrina Bradford is a junior at Vanderbilt University from Washington, D.C., currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in violin performance with Dr. Carolyn Huebl. Writing concert reviews is an easy way for her to combine her love of music and writing.